Monday, 29 August 2016

Travel: Mainz, Germany - Part 1 - Frog Kings and Crownless Saints

Germany has always held a strange fascination to me. It's a lot to do with its long and turbulent history, plus something about the bustling cities, the enigmatic people and their often maligned food and drink culture that seems to draw me back there every year or so. This is the land of pretzels, pork knuckles, big beers and ferociously strong mustard.

I like the old-look Germany with its tall, timber framed houses, cobbled streets and gigantic churches that contrast with the new post war, so-called Brutalist buildings that bear a striking resemblance to overgrown bunkers. (Apparently without a hint of irony...) Plus the sleek, steel and glass uber-sexy structures jar your brain and makes you consider how Germany, and the rest of Europe, might have looked if history had taken a road less travelled - one of peace and tolerance...

Both of which are issues that we still face albeit from a different standpoint and perspective, and ones that were faced by every nation over the millennia that stretch back from the point of our own existence, and will no doubt affect us again in the future.

But crossing the Rhine on a cold and overcast day my mind snapped back to the present, as the excitement of heading to another unknown city had me gleefully smiling out the window as we passed over the shipping container laden bank of that broad river and on towards the city of Mainz. (I've discovered that the best way to learn how to pronounce the names of towns and cities in any country is by listening to how the train announcer says each stop. In this case I discovered it's pronounced 'Mientz.'

A giant frog with a crown was staring out over the Rhine from his perch on a pillar - a Mona Lisa-esque smile on his face - looking longly towards the river. The image was repeated in a more stylised form on the building that surround and almost hid him from view as we passed through the industrial area on the outskirts of the city. He's the logo of a chemical/electronics firm but I presume he has a longer history than the company, as frog kings or princes are in many fairy tales and folk stories. It would be interesting to find out how he came to be connected with the company, but that was research for another day I decided, as the train pulled into Mainz Hauptbahnhof.

As usual I wasn't travelling alone. As well as Pete, my other half had come on this trip with her sister and her other half, so a quintet of Irish people made their way towards to main entrance to the station and stood blinking in the newly arrived sunshine as it shone on the grubby and unattractive buildings that surrounded us - the station itself the only building of interest or note within our sights. Nige, my other usual travelling companion had elected to stay in bed for another hour or two with the promise of catching up with us later.

The station sits on the North-West side of the city centre but for some reason my internal sat nav shut down when I stood on the plaza at the front of the station, with no maps visible we asked a man standing waiting for a bus for directions to the city centre, he shrugged at me so I said 'Aldstadt?' to which he pointed vaguely in the direction of one of the street radiating out from the station logically called Bahnhoff Strasse, which we hoped led to the old town.

We thanked him, which elicited another shrug, and set off up an ugly street that we hoped led towards the city centre, Aldstadt and Dom - the large cathedral that is one of Mainz most famous sights. It was a short walk into the city proper and soon we saw signs for 'Dom' pointing our way from every junction.

The feel and look of the city improved as we walked toward the city centre. The streets broadened and the shops and business became more stylish and better maintained. We passed a memorable statue in bronze of a small fat guy with a cheery expression and a tankard of beer in his hand near the Carnival Museum - Fastnacht Museum - on Schillerstrasse, who certainly lightened our mood. Further on there was a fantastic tower made up of all manner of elves and imps (See the picture at the top of the post) and beyond that the figure of a drummer, again all in bronze.

And from there the Dom appeared in all its beige-brown glory, giving off a slightly Disneyesque quality to my mind and eye. Not that I can explain that feeling but it was probably down to the towers and turrets. Nor can I express the huge, hulking size of the building - or its brilliance of design, apparent even here as we stood gazing at it from the entrance to the market square in which it sits.

St. Martin's Cathedral's story goes back over a thousand years and due to fires, bombardments and rebuilds it comes across as a mish-mash of styles but mostly Romanesque, all pulled together in brown sandstone and greyish slate. It appears to be in a constant state of renovation, improvement and repair for the last millennia, but that could just be my poor translation of its history and assumptions based on the weathering of sandstone. Somehow it all worked, although the brown colour seemed strange and alien to me for a building such as this, but then again that's because I'm used to churches of granite, limestone or marble.

There was a service on when we entered so we made our way quietly to the courtyard, and into an actual oasis of peace within a theoretical oasis of peace. A beautiful cedar stood in perfect scale to the garden itself with its trimmed hedge and too perfect lawn. We strolled around the portico looking at the time-worn and foot-eroded tombstones and features. It was a nice brain calming process after the busy walk into the city and the bustle of the square outside.

When the service ended we wandered back into the Dom. Standing still in its centre you could finally appreciate its true size, with vast columns stretching into the void above our heads. The light had a liquid almost oily quality, accentuated by the stained glass, creating splotches and blotches of colour on the pillars, carvings, and floor.

We wandered around taking in the splendour and majesty of it all, and every now and again a little macabre grotesqueness would catch my eye, perched on a pillar or pew would be a skeletal angel or winged skull. Perhaps religion needs these reminders of death and our eventual end in order to keep the congregation focussed on the job in hand, timely reminders to them of what their fate will be in order to keep their faith instilled within them.

One statue was particularly arresting, depicting a martyr with the top of his head missing, although he's calmly cradling it in his hands so he wasn't too perturbed by the incident. My research on this led me to a new word - cephalophores. These are the head-carrying martys such as St. Denis and others who are depicted in art with their tranquil looking heads under their arms or held out in front of them. This peaceful looking soul must be a subset of these called, perhaps, demicephalophores, who carry just half of their heads around ... they might even pass as normal with a jaunty hat - and a carrier bag.

I took my time strolling around the rest of the building looking at more statues, carvings and features before wandering down underneath the main church and there discovered a small, beautiful chapel behind a locked gate. Its significance was lost to me and in many ways I felt intrusive even being down here looking in ... so I moved on, up  and out, catching up with the others with just a cautious glance back at one of the creepier statues, which I'm pretty sure tilted its skull a fraction. Perhaps I read too many of the wrong books...

We emerged back on to the the square squinting in the bright light and wandered through the market looking at the produce and stalls. It excited me to see local wine for sale at a stall. I have no idea if it was actually local, or any good, but the idea of being able to sell something like this amongst cheeses, vegetables and jams pleased me greatly. I hope that some day we'll be enlightened enough in this country to do the same with local beer and ciders.

Next we wandered out to the Iron Tower, an interesting and striking building sitting amongst boring modern structures. It was one of three gates still standing that formed part of the old city walls, the others being the Wood Tower and the Alexander Tower. Like many structures it was badly damaged in the war and rebuilt in the 60s, which explains its slightly clinical and clean appearance.

Wandering back into the city centre we headed towards the oldest part of town, or at least the only section of the city that was left standing after the war, or required the least reconstruction I'd imagine. It's just south of the Dom and there was a different feel to this area, as it was calmer and looked more affluent and exclusive. I felt a little grotty wandering around here I must admit, as if the style-police would tap me on the shoulder and frogmarch me back to the cheap department stores and kiosks on the other side of the square. Luckily - or perhaps surprisingly - this never happened. We spent a happy hour or so looking at the buildings and taking in the atmosphere, peering through windows and doors and enjoying the traditional - faux or not - feel to the place.

Time was pressing on and we still had three sites to see, so we wandered back to the north of the Dom to our next destination and a date with some old books...

Next time - Part 2: Bibles, Brews and Feeling Blue

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